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While walking the other day, I was overcome by the smell of giant hogweed and was surprised at how many flies were flying around it. This made me wonder why they were attracted to the scent.

Flowers use a combination of chemicals to emit a smell. Some flowers attract insects to pollinate, while others use scent to repel insects. Flowers are used in cooking as essential oils and air fresheners.

If you want to find out more, there is some great information below.

One of the first aspects of a flower you may notice is the beautiful smell they give off. These smells are not for us, however. The scents attract insects to pollinate while also warning other insects away.

If you want to know why some plants have thorns, you can find out in this article I wrote

Most plants have a distinctive smell that allows you to identify them for one another. Some are pleasant to our noses, such as the beautiful, sweet smell of roses or honeysuckle to the sharp, refreshing scent of mint. However, others, such as hogweed, are not pleasant at all.

Smells are made as a result of a combination of chemical substances. Plants synthesize chemicals by using a lot of energy. Therefore it should be no surprise that flowers use their smell for many different things, from defense to pollination. However, many plants are used by us in cooking due to their strong odors due to these chemicals.

Aromatic Families

There are a small number of plant families where a large proportion of their species have aromatic plants such as flowers, roots, stems, or foliage. Still, many individual species are aromatic.

Mint has several species in its family, and although they all smell like we expect them to mint, they all smell slightly different. All mint species contain menthol, an ingredient in many of our cold and cough medicines. Menthol is why all species of mint smell similar.

The different types of mint come from the other substances and chemicals they create, making some better for specific uses.

Daisies contain several different types in their family, including many different scented plants. Pineapple weed smells similar to pineapples, while other daisy family members include chamomile, wormwood, and mayweed.

The carrot family includes several different-smelling plants as well. Wild carrots, hemlock, parsley, and chervil are in the same family.

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Essential Oils

The scents of many flowers and plants are also used in essential oils. These are made up of the scented chemicals produced by plants. Unique petals, leaves, or stem cells secrete the oils.

The oils accumulate close to the surface, releasing their scent continuously in some plants, whereas others only release their scent if the plant is bruised or damaged.

Mint is a popular essential oil where the oil is close to the surface, which is one reason why the smell is so pungent and robust. Lavender and thyme oil evaporates slowly, leaving the scent in the air for some time. Evaporation of the oil allows the plants to cool, helping them avoid water loss from their leaves.

St. Johns Wort has many oil glands in its leaves, and the oil can be seen easily.

Wildwood garlic smell only when its leaves are bruised or crushed. If you have ever walked through a patch of wildwood garlic, you will know the smell they emit.

Chemical Messages

Although many plants smell friendly and great that we can use them as essential oils, this is not the main reason for releasing these chemicals.

The smells act as chemical messages between themselves and insects or animals. The letters may be used to attract or repel certain species. The letters are even directed at certain species of animal.

Although we can smell plants and flowers, these messages are not often intended for other mammals or us. Some poisonous plants, such as hemlock or hellebore, use their smell to stop animals from eating them.

Insects are the intended recipient of the smells from a plant or flower. Insects have an excellent sense of smell and can find the flower’s location from their scent. Insects are used for pollination, and the smell allows the flower to reproduce, which is their primary aim.

The smell is effective over long distances and works much better in attracting insects than the plant’s color. The scent can attract daytime and nocturnal insects, such as moths, allowing them to pollinate at night. The smell also allows plants growing in the shade to attract insects.

Many plants do not rely on flowers to attract insects, depending on their scent to attract pollinators. Many plants that do not rely on flowers to attract insects are white.

Butterflies and moths have such highly developed senses of smell that they can detect a single flower from more than 1km away. The increased concentration as they get closer allows them to find the flower easily.

Have you ever wondered where the names of flowers come from?  Find out in this article I wrote.

Selective Smells

Different plants use different combinations of chemicals depending on the pollinating insect they are trying to attract. Flies are attracted to decaying flesh as larvae, and plants such as hogweed imitate this smell to attract them. Flies may use the plants to lay their eggs as they may still be convinced that what they have landed on is a dead animal.

While plants such as hogweed give off a decaying flesh smell, other plants give off a sickly sweet smell that attracts insects attracted to nectar. Bluebells, roses, and violets attract butterflies attracted to the scent.

Caterpillars feed on plants that they find attractive. They provide and store some of the plant’s scent in their bodies. Once they have gone through the pupa stage, metamorphizing into butterflies, they release some of these scents’ traces, which allows them to attract a mate.

If you want to know why plants turn towards the sun, you can find out in this article I wrote.


Although many smells released attract different types of insects, some aromas released warn insects away. Insects that can harm the plant are often warned away by the scent, advising them to stay away from poisonous plants.

The poisons released act as a natural insecticide, with the toxins being scented. Wormwood can keep flies out of a room and keep moths out of clothes due to their scent.

Some plant chemicals, such as pyrethrum, are used in many commercial insecticides.

Air Fresheners

One of the ways that we use plants is as air fresheners. History has shown that we have used plants and herbs as air fresheners, strewn around houses on floors. Mint rushes and sweet flag, one of the oldest known plants, can all be used as air fresheners.

Many commercial air fresheners still use plants as their basis, with essential oils being used. Pine has been used for over a century, with pine cones used historically as natural air fresheners, placed around the house and in clothes.

Kitchen Herbs

Many plants are used every day for their aroma as herbs during cooking. Herbs were initially added to food to break up the monotony of eating the same dish every night, improving food that may have gone slightly off.

Many herbs have been cultivated for centuries for food, spreading from herb gardens into the wild. Fennel, coriander, and parsley are used every day in cooking.

Growing herbs is a great attraction if you want to attract more wildlife to your garden.  Find out which herbs to plant here.